The doctor will be cross. After a near miss just a couple of years ago, the arteries of public debate are once again becoming clogged with conceptual cholesterol. Some say, for example, that we have reached the current crisis point because of a referendum that was unnecessary or reckless. Some who say this sort of thing also say that there should be another referendum on Scottish independence so we must assume that they are really aggrieved by the outcome rather than by the principle of holding referendums on major constitutional issues, the precedent for which is now well-established.
The point of dispute, however, is not always made clear. In Scotland there have been three referendums on our constitutional arrangements since the late 1970s and there is a good chance that the funfair will come to town again in the near future. The point is this: You either support in principle the use of referendums for determining such matters or you do not. If Scots are entitled to cast a vote on the constitutional future of our country, then surely the people of the UK were equally entitled to be asked their views on membership of the EU. The legitimacy of holding a referendum is not determined by the outcome. If that were the case, however, it might be argued that a vote for change was a more worthwhile democratic exercise that one that reaffirmed the status quo because it would represent some latent will of the people. If you were to subscribe to such thinking you would have to conclude that the EU referendum was a more legitimate exercise than that in 2014.
Another questionable notion thickening the air is that the UK is heading for the door because of the parlour games played by a handful of right-wing Tories. This is a remarkable line of argument that relies on disregarding a vote with a 72% turnout. The impression is given of some renegade clique wakening a trembling nation with a unilateral declaration of independence delivered in perfect RP. Take Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books: 'The battle of Brexit came about not because of any serious demand for national change,’ he argued, 'but for the reasons that the Wars of the Roses came about: a power vendetta within a tiny group of privileged men, which they managed to spread beyond their own followers to huge numbers of discontented subjects as if it were their own quarrel'. This is typically eloquent and learned. It’s also wayward nonsense.
Setting aside the gender assumptions in the 'privileged men’ remark (Patel, Villiers, Leadsom anyone?) the main point of disagreement has to be with the rendering of Leave voters as dupes, village peasants, mere puppets of conniving Tories. We might call into question the reasoning by people who decided to vote Leave and the information they had at their disposal when making it, but let’s not deny them a sense of independent agency.
Neal Ascherson’s comments reminded me of a tweet by Kevin McKenna, who called the outcome of the referendum: 'The most expensive right-wing coup d'etat in history’. What a peculiar framing of the outcome, supported by the votes of more than 17 million people. Perhaps McKenna’s outlook was warped by an over-reliance on impressions gained in Glasgow where just over half the eligible voters bothered to participate. Yet some of the same people who were otherwise engaged for 15 hours on 23 June would no doubt happily ride the wave of discontent to a second referendum on independence. The suspicion is that dour masks are being used to hide grins of Cheshire cat proportions.
A strong case could be made for saying the timing of the referendum owed something to internal party politics but what of it? We wait for a second referendum on independence when enough opinion polls tell the SNP it will win and how is that more legitimate? Membership of the EU was hardly a non-existent issue in UK politics prior to the calling of the referendum, even if it might have been low on many people’s list of priorities. Maybe this is what Ascherson meant when he referred to there being no 'serious demand for national change’ although it’s far from clear what would qualify as a 'serious demand’. Regardless, when asked directly about the issue the answer was clear enough.
The legitimacy of referendums, it should be noted, is also not related to the positioning of an issue on some imagined list of priorities. If people cared enough to vote, they cared enough. Here are some follow-up questions: At what point on the road to further European integration would it have been correct to put the matter to a public vote? Or should we conclude that a vote on EU membership would not have been appropriate at any time? If not, why not? Would an independent Scotland not consider its relationship with the EU under any circumstances? If not, what value has independence?
This is an exercise in arguing against the personal grain because the outcome was not the one I favoured. Indeed, it would seem to contain within it the very real possibility of the future disintegration of the UK. But it’s important to get on top of gut reactions. The rush to condemn the referendum as unnecessary or an extension of the madness of a small number of people are emotional responses. They need to be set to the side and in doing so we should remember that among us, here in fortress Scotland, there are those who voted to leave. Kezia Dugdale recently delivered a speech that was commendable for acknowledging the existence of Brexiters in Scotland rather than having them flattened like tarmac under the feet of a nation marching in perfect unity. More often than not their existence has not been spoken to, as though it were some dirty family secret. Unlike the minority after 2014, no Scottish voices really speak for these people in this country so concerned about its democratic deficits.
In different times and under different circumstances, William F Buckley Jr once remarked: 'The insufficiency of democracy as a guarantor of enlightened public action is now perceptible'. We might disagree on whether the vote to leave the EU was an act of enlightened public action, arguably we are not fully in a position to make such a determination. The important point to stress is that the question was asked and the people responded, even if we didn’t much like the answer.